"THE HEART OF THE MATTER"
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Guest: Dr. Andrea Taylor, Across Ages program, Philadelphia
Topic: Mentoring against drugs
Host/Producer: Steve Girard
NEMA: They used to call it a generation gapö...now it seems more like the Grand Canyon. But in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a special program called Across Ages helps youngsters and oldsters bond, and allows many retired people to use their experience and wisdom to help kids get through their troubles and temptations. Our guest today is Dr. Andrea Taylor, who runs the program...
TAYLOR: Across Ages is an intergenerational mentoring approach to drug prevention. It's funded by the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, and the focus of the project is recruiting older adults, training them and matching them as mentors for high risk middle school students. The project actually has four components to it: besides the mentoring, the students do community service, and they visit with elderly residents in nursing homes. Their classroom teachers teach a life-skills curriculum with them, which is really designed to help them resist peer pressure and make some better decisions around whether they want to get involved in drugs and some of the other things they're at risk for. And finally, we do workshops and activities on the weekends that bring their parents and other family members in. The program is sponsored by the Center for Intergenerational Learning at Temple University, and our mission is to really develop programs that bring elders and youth together, which is why the mentors all have to be 55 years and older, and why the students, for their community service, visit with residents in nursing homes. Because it really gives them an opportunity to be with people of different ages who are also, of course, in different circumstances.
NEMA: How do the match-ups of youth and aged work out? Perhaps their could be a grandparent/grandchild kind of bonding...
TAYLOR: There is a real bond that develops between the children and the mentors, and I think there is that aspect to it. I believe that kids are thinking about grandparents, but it's also not quite that simple, because you really have to provide lots of ways to help the children and the adults get to know each other. In fact, we do a lot of structured workshops and activities in the classroom before we make the matches. And we do a lot of training even before the children meet the mentors, to look at some age related stereotypes. We help the kids think about what aging is all about, what do they associate the word Old with, how younger people tend to stereotype older people...and then how they, themselves have been stereotyped. So, by the time they actually meet the adults, they've already got some preparation and background in terms of what it's like to be an older adult in this country. And the same is true for the mentors...we do a lot of training with them before we ever bring them into the classroom. And because people are living longer, and they're living at relatively healthy lives...they have a lot of years after retirement when they're really looking for meaningful things to do with their time, and when they're relatively active and energetic. So, this is a perfect opportunity for them to give back to the community.
NEMA: How long does the match go on?
TAYLOR: We ask the mentors to make a commitment for at least a year...and because this is a school based project, and what that means is the population of children that we work with come from particular classrooms in particular schools in the Philadelphia community, we have some flexibility that in bringing the mentors into the classroom. It takes time to build up trust. One of the things that we find is that often the children will tell the mentors sometimes more than they really want to know...they'll tell them a lot of very personal things about family and so forth. But after the honeymoon period is over, it really takes a lot for the child to be able to go to the mentor, if in fact they need an adult to talk to. So the mentor has to often be kind of persistent and be a very good and very effective listener.
NEMA: So the children are around 12 when they enter the program?
TAYLOR: ....the children in our program range in age anywhere from 10 up to 14. Most of them are in the 11, 12, 13 range...actually 10 - 11 is...that's the age that kids usually are when they go into sixth grade. But many of our students are overage because they've had a lot of school failure...which is, of course, one of the reasons they've been identified as being good candidates for the program.
NEMA: How are the mentors prepared to handle drug issues?
TAYLOR: In order for the adults to become mentors in the program, they are very carefully screened. And they come in for an interview, they have to give us references...we do a criminal check, a child abuse background check and so forth. And part of the process is they participate in two days of pre-service training...and during that time, we give them a lot of materials. And, of course, one of the thing we talk about is how to talk to the kids about drug issues, and what to do if the kids come to them with problems. And we provide ongoing training throughout the school year, so that we have monthly in-service meetings, and the mentors always have the opportunity to bring these kinds of things up. You know, if something comes along and they're not sure how to deal with it. Also, most of these folks have raised children...some are in fact caring for grandchildren... and they've seen what drugs, the drug problem has done to the community. So, they're very well aware of what the issues are. I think the other thing is that we don't spend a tremendous amount of time educating the kids about how drugs are bad for them. What we are trying to do is to provide them with the notion that they have a future and that they can make choices. And to kind of give them an opportunity to be exposed to a lot of different activities...and help them set goals, so that they'll really have something to work towards.
NEMA: What do the kids see in these mentors that might influence them positively?
TAYLOR: The mentors offer a picture of somebody who has survived a lot. Most of our mentors grew up in the communities where the kid live...even if they don't live there now, they certainly have experienced it, they know what it's like. These are people who have survived tremendous adversity, and they're still around, they're still active...and here they are doing things with young people. and that model can have a tremendous impact on a child, probably almost more than anything you could say. You know, they see people in their 70Æs who are out there cheering at basketball games, willing to go to the movies. We have kids who just sort of drop over to their mentors homes and shoot the breeze, help them garden and all sorts of things.
NEMA: The Across Ages mentoring drug prevention program has been running for six years now...have the results met the expectations?
TAYLOR: In order to even get the funding for this, we had to develop an evaluation plan that was really going to adhere to rigorous standards, and hopefully show us something. What we do with this kind of outcome evaluation is that we give the children a pretest at the beginning of the school year and a post-test at the end of the school year...to see what kinds of changes have occurred. And then we are also doing a six month follow up and an 18 month follow-up. So we get a chance to really track the children. So we have that really hard outcome data that is showing us that this program works, and some of the ways in which the kids have shown improvement have to do with their attitude towards adults, their connection with school, their self-esteem, their capacity as problem solvers. One of the interesting things that we're seeing, which I think is particularly noteworthy for educators, is that their attendance improves dramatically. And what we found is that all the children who were involved in Across Ages showed positive changes. The children who had the mentors seemed to have the most positive changes...and some of the stories the kids have to tell, you know, it's just one....
One of the children, for example, lost his mother...and in the middle of the school year. He was 12 years old. And he happened to be matched with a mentor who had also lost his mother when he was 12 years old. And this mentor had absolutely gone downhill...he had dropped out of school in the 6th grade, he had gone on to become a drug addict, an alcoholic ... he had spent time in prison. And had turned his life around in the last 10 years or so...and has come back to lend a hand to other kids who really need support. And he was so fabulous with this child, and really was able to talk with them about how painful this is and what are the kinds of things that he had to do to make sure that he didn't, that he the child didn't follow in this mentor's footsteps. And then, when the child's uncle kind of stepped into the picture to really sort of help out and support the family...this mentor knew when to back off to allow the child and the uncle to really connect and have a relationship.
I want to also be clear...is that this is not an easy thing that we're asking the mentors to do. It's not that ...after 4 or 5 weeks of training, that we match the kids, and everything is bliss. Because the mentors have to be persistent. We have a lot of work and training that we do with the kids to help them become responsive and responsible for their mentors. If you make a date with your mentor, you don't not show up...and not call. The kinds of things that seem very basic to us, are things that really have to be taught. So, it's a ...it can be...sometimes a difficult process.
NEMA: What is the most difficult part of the program?
TAYLOR: I think the mentors would say that working with the parents is the hardest thing. Because those relationships that really blossom are ones in which the parents are supportive. Then we have parents who say, ô...yes, my child can be in this program...goodbye, good luck...whatever you want to do is fineö. And parents who really will abdicate totally, and it's very difficult for the mentors under those circumstances, because it's so helpful to have the parents support in helping the kids be responsible.
NEMA: Dr. Andrea Taylor says the mentoring program against drugs is starting to spread to other communities...it's been designated as a model program to follow. If your community or school district would like to get into mentoring, Dr. Taylor can be reached at Temple University in Philadelphia...area code 215-204-6708.
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